The Special Relationship debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
For a little while early in its running time, The Special Relationship feels like '90s porn. There are long, lingering shots of peace and prosperity, of two countries - the United States and United Kingdom - where the thought of dark and dangerous things barely even intrudes, and these shots practically beg the audience to salivate at the shots of a world where some things were still certain, where darkness had yet to seriously intrude and the U.S. stood firmly on the world stage, commanding respect and admiration, the U.K. its solid partner just off to the side.
The Special Relationship is the third of screenwriter Peter Morgan's projects that seem to aim at creating a loving hagiography of Tony Blair and his Britain, an idyllic place where nothing was ever wrong and anything that went wrong certainly wasn't Blair's fault. Morgan's previous projects in this vein - The Deal and The Queen - took close-up looks at very specific moments in Blair's life. (I have not seen The Deal, but The Queen is a fine, fine film, where Morgan's script is bolstered by great work from director Stephen Frears and star Helen Mirren.) The Special Relationship is wider-ranging, and it eventually becomes the most cynical portrayal of Blair yet in the loose series.
The wider-ranging focus is both the strength and the weakness of The Special Relationship. Taking the long view of Blair's relationship with U.S. President Bill Clinton allows for Morgan to subtly play out how the two's power relative to each other slowly shifted and to make the story, such as it is, more of a tragedy than The Queen was, a tale of hoped for things that never came to be and lost promise and all of that. But taking the long view also means that the film simply tries to cram in too much in its 90 minute running time, and toward the end, things are happening so quickly that director Richard Loncraine seems to throw up his hands and rely on news footage to paper over some of the story gaps. Obviously, most of the audience will have lived through this and have fairly good memories of, say, the war in Kosovo or the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But the storytelling isn't terribly elegant.
It's odd that The Special Relationship is so short. Even an extra half hour of running time could have bolstered the movie's central story and relationship, and without that extra time, the final half hour feels incredibly chaotic, as the script ping pongs from one moment to another with news events bleeding into personal events bleeding into smaller, quieter scenes. Morgan sticks the landing in the end, with a riveting scene where Blair and Clinton spend their last weekend as world leaders together (and Morgan ably foreshadows all that will come for the two's respective nations through just a few lines of dialogue and Clinton's apparent prophetic abilities), but there's plenty of jumbled story time on the way there.
It's too bad, really, because the core of the movie is very strong. The piece is built around three performances that somehow grow from being mere impersonations and become something real and moving. Dennis Quaid's take on Clinton is probably the least of the three, but what seems like a goofy impersonation at first (and how hard would it be to create an essentially serious Clinton with that accent?) grows into something more tragic as Quaid gets at the thing in Clinton's nature that doesn't allow him to step back and stop, that pushes him to keep lying to people about his relationship with Lewinsky, yet still to be rapacious in his appetites. It takes a while for Quaid's performance to settle, but once it does, it's very fine indeed.
Even better is Hope Davis as Hillary Clinton. It's easy to turn portrayals of Hillary Clinton into making the woman a shrieking harridan, but Davis makes her a loose and funny woman who is, nonetheless, not as comfortable with strangers or in front of the camera as her incredibly gifted politician of a husband is. Of the three central performances, Davis probably tries the least for a straight-up impersonation (though whomever has done her hair has gotten Hillary Clinton's mid-90s style down), but her performance may be the most successful. She suggests a lot of things about Hillary Clinton that have long been assumed - how she's biding her time, waiting for Bill to let her take the reins of power; how she's a little insecure deep down - but she never comes out and says them, and she leaves the ultimate impression of Hillary Clinton as being a warm woman who simply freezes up at key moments.
But the real great performance here - as it was in The Queen - is Michael Sheen as Blair. Perhaps Morgan's scripts feel as though they can seem to make Blair into a saint because he knows Sheen will play the calculation in Blair's eyes in the split second before he says something warm or funny or moving. The Special Relationship allows Sheen to take Blair from the events of The Deal well past The Queen, up until the administration of George W. Bush. Morgan and Sheen have long talked about doing a project about how Blair and Bush tragically pressed forward into the Iraq War, despite some good warnings that there was no reason to do so, and while I still hope the two do that to put a cap on the story of their version of Blair, I think this film will make it more effective, ultimately.
Here, Blair goes from goofy, sincere politician to a master calculator on the world stage, and Sheen makes all of that feel of a piece with everything else he's doing. That final scene suggests that, ultimately, Morgan views Blair as a good man who was corrupted, as ultimately fallible, and Sheen has little to do in it but react to what Quaid is saying, and he lands every minute of it. I rarely get into Emmy prognostication, but Sheen more than deserves the acting Emmy for his work here, so good is he. When the film is in danger of flying off the tracks, Sheen grounds it singlehandedly, and his work, again, with Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair suggests a passionate but lived-in marriage of the sort you rarely see in fiction.
It's too bad that portions of The Special Relationship are so chaotic because what works works so very well. It's easy to imagine a version of this where Morgan and Loncraine simply trusted their viewers and audience to know what was going on and hit on important scenes from the lives of the two men in the time period portrayed without feeling the need to paper over the gaps with exposition about what was happening. Had some of the scenes surrounding Blair backing Clinton into the Kosovo invasion or Blair trying to help his friend out after the Lewinsky scandal broke had more room to breathe, they might have landed with more power. Instead, they feel oddly rushed.
But The Special Relationship gets one thing right. Like Mad Men, it relies on our knowledge of what's to come to create lots of its conflict, and it doesn't push any of this too heavily. (Even that final scene, which steps to the edge of saying too much, pulls back at the last possible moment.) Early in the film, Clinton is waxing rhapsodic about how center-left progressive politics are the wave of the future for Western democracies, talking about how when Al Gore succeeds him, with Blair at the helm in the UK, things will start to fall into place. Regardless of whether you were a Clinton fan or not, it's a sad moment, where you can see just how much Clinton believed in the vision of the world he had in that moment, without knowing that his own actions would be among the central things that kept that world from becoming a reality.
There's a temptation in recent fiction to portray the '90s as something roughly analogous to the 1920s - the calm before the giant storm - and The Special Relationship fights the urge to give into that at all times. What keeps it from succumbing is its sense of these two men as men whose appetites would doom themselves and drag the rest of us down with them.